Thursday, February 17, 2011

And a Little of That Human Touch*

There are a number of social and environmental problems – some of them quite serious – that we face. Some of those problems have been part of our reality for a very long time, and it makes sense that crime fiction authors would address them. They are a part of real life. To ignore them would be to candy-coat reality. On the other hand, crime fiction fans generally don’t want their books to preach to them. In fact, that sense of preaching can be very off-putting and take a reader out of the story. So how does an author acknowledge and address some of the very real social, economic, environmental and other problems in the world without preaching? Some authors do this very effectively by making those problems personal. By that I mean they show the reader how those problems affect individual characters and their families.

For example, Arthur Conan Doyle addresses racial prejudice in a very personal way in The Adventure of the Yellow Face. In that story, Grant Munro asks for Holmes’ help in understanding the strange behaviour of his wife Effie. The two have been happy together, but recently, she’s been acting secretive. Munro thinks this change might be related to a mysterious family that’s recently moved into the neighbourhood. Munro doesn’t know much about the family, but Effie seems to know more than she’s saying about them. Holmes agrees to look into the case. When he discovers the truth about the family and about Effie Munro’s behaviour, we get a personal look at how racial prejudice can affect people. That “human touch” is much more effective at sending that message than a long diatribe about the dangers of racism would be.

That’s also true in Ruth Rendell’s Simisola. In that novel, Inspector Reg Wexford gets involved in the search for Melanie Akande, his doctor’s daughter. Melanie went missing shortly after an interview with Annette Bystock, a consultant at a local job placement bureau. Shortly after Melanie disappears, Annette is found murdered after what seems to be a robbery gone very wrong. When a young woman’s body turns up in a local wood, everyone thinks the body is Melanie Akande’s. But then it becomes clear that the dead woman was someone else. Now Wexford and his team are faced with two murder investigations as well as the ongoing search for the missing woman. Throughout this novel, Rendell addresses the harsh realities of racial prejudice, immigration and modern slave trafficking. But the stories are told on a personal level, and we see how these larger problems affect real people.

Agatha Christie brought several social issues down to the personal level, too. For instance, in Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), we meet the Cloade family. Wealthy patriarch Gordon Cloade has always taken financial care of his family, and in fact, told his brothers, sister, and other relations not to worry about money, as he would also provide for them in his will. Then, unexpectedly, Cloade meets and falls in love with Rosaleen Underhay, a young widow. They marry, but before Cloade has the time to rewrite his will so that his family will be provided for even after his marriage, he is killed in a bomb blast. Now, Rosaleen Cloade is set to inherit all of her husband’s considerable fortune, leaving the rest of Cloade’s family with nothing. Then, a mysterious stranger arrives in the Cloades’ home village of Warmsley Vale, claiming that Rosaleen Cloade’s first husband may in fact not have died. When that stranger is killed, Hercule Poirot investigates the death. We see several devastating effects of war in this novel besides the bomb blast that killed Cloade. For instance, one of Cloade’s brothers and his wife lost their only son to the war. Cloade’s sister Adela has had to deal with serious shortages and a greatly reduced income. Cloade’s nephew Rowley is a farmer who has to deal with his guilt over staying at home while his business partner went to war and was killed. And Rowley’s fiancée Lynn, who saw service as a Wren, has to cope with adjusting to being back home and to her changed relationship with Rowley. And then there’s David Hunter, Rosaleen’s brother. He saw distinguished service during the war, but he’s rather a “loose cannon,” who can’t seem to adjust to peacetime life. In showing the havoc the war wrought in this family, Christie paints a much more powerful picture of war’s effects than there would have been if this novel had been more “preachy.”

The history of U.S. relations with the Native American Nations is a sad one, and it’s had devastating effects. And in Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels, we get a personal look at some of those effects. And yet, what’s really interesting about these novels is that they address this issue without “beating the reader over the head” with them. For example, in the early Jim Chee novels, Chee, a member of the Navajo Nation and the Navajo Tribal Police, is in a relationship with Mary Landon, a White schoolteacher who teaches on the Reservation. They do love each other, but they also have real underlying cultural differences that get in the way. As Chee and Landon sort out their relationship, we see a microcosm of White/Native American relationships. In the end, the couple don’t stay together, and although that’s sad, it’s also a reflection of this larger social issue. There are lots of other examples of the troubled relationship between these cultures in the Hillerman novels but again, Hillerman doesn’t really preach. That’s also true in Margaret Coel’s Wind River series, which focuses on the Arapaho culture. Coel’s sleuth Vicky Holden is a member of the Arapaho Nation and an attorney who frequently has to balance her identity as a member of her people with her duties as a lawyer.

Simon Lelic’s Rupture (AKA A Thousand Cuts) deals with the important social issue of bullying in a personal way. In that novel, history teacher Samuel Szajkowski walks into a crowded assembly at the school where he teaches and shoots three students and another teacher before turning the gun on himself. DI Lucia May is assigned to get interviews and write up a report on the tragedy. It’s assumed that her report will “rubber stamp” a theory that Szajkowski was an unstable person who simply “snapped.” As she learns more about the victims, the shooter and the school culture though, May realises that these shootings were much more complicated than just a case of one unhinged person. The more May looks into the case, the more she sees how closely related the killings are to the culture of bullying at the school. And the more she sees how the school’s culture eerily resembles the culture at her own workplace. Rather than preach about how wrong it is to bully, Lelic shows the reader the effects of bullying on individual lives, and this is much more eloquent, at least in my view (so feel free to differ with me).

There are lots of other examples (far too many for this one post) of authors who hold up a mirror, so to speak, to many of the social problems we face. But they do it without preaching; instead, they make their stories that much more unforgettable and absorbing by using the “human touch” to make their points. But what’s your view? Do you prefer this kind of approach? Or do you still find it too preachy? If you’re a writer, how do you integrate social issues (if you do) into your work?



NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Human Touch.

16 comments:

  1. When I had read six lines, I thought of Simisola! Perhaps because my daughter and I talked about crime novels that were more than just entertainment this afternoon, and Simisola is a shared favourite of this kind.

    I hope that while I struggle to make my characters more than cardboard figures, I also equip my stories with social issues, and I have attacked abuse of women and children more than once in my serious works.

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  2. Dorte - Oh, that's interesting that this post made you think of Simisola right away. I thought of it first, too, when I was thinking of how I would put this together. I think Simisola is really such a good balance of telling an effective mystery story while still having other, deeper things to say. It's hard to strike that balance, but this one does is.

    I think your stories really do address larger issues - at least the ones I've read. I'm thinking of the way you address domestic issues in The Knitting Club, for instance, from your Candied Crime. Such an effective blend of a solid mystery and touching and deeper things...

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  3. I prefer this kind of approach, although sometimes reading a book that doesn't include social issues can be a nice break from the heavier stuff.

    Social issues are the main focus of a trilogy I wrote; most of what the characters do are based on those problems and what people are doing around them.

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  4. Golden Eagle - I know what you mean. Social issues are an important part of life, but if they're going to be discussed in a novel, it's most effective if they're addressed in the context of what people - individual people - do about them. Otherwise things really can get too preachy.

    And you've interested me in your trilogy - I'll have to look for it.

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  5. As a writer and a reader, I try not to be too preachy because I hate being preached to. However, I know that sometimes in my novel what annoys my chracters are things I feel strongly about. But overall, I try to keep my mysteries as enjoyable to the reader and not too bog down with issues.

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  6. Clarissa - I don't know that it's possible for authors not to let some of what they are passionate about "seep through" into their writing. But I think you have your priorities straight. The story - the main plot - has to come first.

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  7. I too, thought Simisola and Rupture very effective in this regard. On your point about the environment, one reason I am enjoying the Joe Pickett novels by C J Box is that they show a great love for the natural environment (of Wyoming and environs) but a full awareness of the various problems and perspectives - there are no simple answers or one-stop-shop "solutions". I remember hurling a Nora Roberts book across the room once (I was on holiday and had run out of books, this one was on a shelf in the place I was staying), when the farmer switched to organic cotton and immediately his yields increased by three times, etc. (She has obviously never been to a local farmer's market where one has the dilemma of buying ethically sound but wizened and weevil-pitted apples, or the juicy standard variety!).

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  8. I just happen to finish 'Involuntary Witness' by Gianrico Carofiglio. A good example for your post as well. Carofiglio doesn't preach but uses a “human touch” in stead. A much better approach to tackle social problems.

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  9. Maxine - I can picture your frustration at that organic cotton point! I'd have wanted to do the same thing. One of these days soon I should do a post on being accurate about things like that...

    And I've been following your reviews of the Joe Pickett novels with quite a lot of interest. I agree with you that they show a deep love and concern for the environment. And yet, Box doesn't turn those novels into preaching. Rather, we see how individual lives are affected and how those individuals respond to the issues. That's part of the appeal of those books.



    José Ignacio - I've heard of Involuntary Witness, but not yet read it. It does seem to address issues of race and immigration in a personal way, though, and seems to be a really good example of what I had in mind in this post. I look forward to your review of it.

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  10. Few books scared me more than Simisola--I have never heard about such a thing before then,

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  11. Patti - Oh, it is a really creepy book on that score. I didn't want to think that kind of thing happened, either, but it does *shudder.*

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  12. Hillerman came to mind as soon as I began reading this post. His books tell of the problems Native Americans face but do it in such a personal way it doesn't appear preachy to me. When an author is able to do this, I think the reader draws more from it than they would being beat over the head with it.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  13. Mason - I agree completely, both with your main point and your point about Hillerman. He does discuss some of the challenges Native Americans have dealt with, but he does it in a way that doesn't preach at the reader. That's so important if the author wants to draw the reader in.

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  14. Frequently, it's something that's worked in skilfully enough that I really don't notice it. You're right--if it seems preachy then it's a turn-off. But approaching difficult subjects can add a complexity to a book.

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  15. Elizabeth - That's just it! If it's worked in skillfully, and it's an integral part of the plot, then it doesn't come off as preachy. I also think it helps if we see these issues through the characters' eyes - as individuals dealing with them.

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  16. Wow. Great post here. I'm definitely dealing with social issues in the novels I'm writing. You've given me one more thing to think about. Thanks? ;-)

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